Who Holds The Keys? The Issues With Putting NFTs In The Museum Collection

Rhea Myers, Titled (Information as Property as Art) [Ethereum Null Address] (source)

In our latest WAC Weekly, we were joined by Tina Rivers Ryan, curator at the Buffalo AKG (formerly Albright-Knox Gallery) in New York to talk about the challenges of acquiring Blockchain-registered artworks in a museum’s private collection. While closed for rebuilding, Buffalo AKG has run the Peer to Peer exhibition where the museum has permanently acquired every single piece of the show using Blockchain technology. This raises all kinds of issues around storage, conservation, accessioning, and deaccessioning we briefly touched on with Brian Frye in our previous session.

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Peer to Peer: acquiring the world’s largest collection of Blockchain-registered art

In 2022 the Buffalo AKG ran their Peer to Peer in partnership with the digital art platform Feral File, highlighting some of the leading artists in the NFT space such as Rhea Myers, Sarah Friend, and Simon Denny. Ryan tells us that the Albright-Knox Gallery was the first museum to dedicate an exhibition to photography in 1910, so Peer to Peer fits in with a long tradition of embracing new technologies. Having followed the blockchain art space since 2016, the most notable thing Ryan has observed is the increasing interest in digital art overall helped by the NFT hype over the past three years.

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Like most nonprofit organizations, the museum doesn’t have the resources to spin up and run its own digital platform. It’s why exhibitors turn to platforms like Spatial or Mozilla Hubs, which may not be especially suited to digital art. It’s why AKG hosted the exhibition on Feral File, which did bespoke work on the backend to make the work presentable.

Having bought an edition of each of the artworks in Peer to Peer, Buffalo AKG could now have the world’s largest collection of artists working with blockchain and NFT-based art. But in Ryan’s view, the museum didn’t actually “acquire” any of the NFTs except for a piece by Simon Denny. They acquired the artworks attached to the NFTs.

“From my perspective, we did not acquire NFTs, with the exception of Simon Denny’s work” Tina Rivers Ryan

It’s important to clarify what it legally means for a US nonprofit museum to actually acquire a work. For the most part, a US art museum is legally designated as being a nonprofit that is governed by a board of trustees that oversees a collection of fine art.

While there are many assets that the museum can own, like the building they’re housed in, there’s a legally distinct subset of that property that makes up the fine art collection. Assets that are accessioned into the fine art collection cannot be sold for profit except to fund the acquisition of further artworks. While that may or may not be legally enforceable, it is written into the bylaws of governing organizations that oversee museum accreditation.

For the most part, NFTs are not conceptually part of the works presented in Peer to Peer. Acting as an enhanced certificate of authenticity, the NFT is just another kind of asset the museum could hold in a database along with other documentation, not a part of the fine art collection itself.

Technical challenges of acquiring NFTs for museums

But Simon Denny’s work Metaverse Landscape 1: Decentraland Parcel -81, -17 is a conceptual piece that’s linked a physical painting to a ledger device with an open edition of tokens minted on the Blockchain. The museum is acquiring one of those tokens as part of the artwork.

And, as this piece is not “an NFT”, the artwork will be registered in the museum’s database as described on the FeralFile’s website: “UV print and oil on canvas, wood, MDF, Plexiglas, ETH paper wallet, dynamic ERC-721 NFT”. Properly reflecting the relationship between Denny’s artwork and its NFT, in this case, a kind of “supplemental provenance”, will involve careful management of AKG’s collection database.

Simon Denny, Metaverse Landscape 1: Decentraland Parcel -81, -17 (source)

One reason AKG partnered with Feral File was that when you transact on Feral File, you get a downloadable .zip file that contains all the files a digital artwork depends on. This file is what’s actually stored in AKG’s fine art collection, just like any other digital art piece. The museum has expertise in storing digital art for posterity that someone running an IPFS node probably doesn’t, which makes decentralized storage platforms like that untenable for use in museum collections.

This kind of question is quite a standard one in digital art conservation. If digital artwork is bound up in the operations of a specific piece of software or hardware, museums are very proactive about working with the artists to figure out how they can keep this artwork viewable in perpetuity. Last year AKG acquired the imagery that makes up the Google Earth database and has measures in place to make sure those assets are still viewable if/when Google Earth shuts down.

Because digital storage media slowly decays because of issues like “bit rot”, conserving it over the long term is an active process that requires specific budgeting and resources. These concerns around running devices in the long-term affect everything from the hard drives files are stored on, to any hardware crypto wallets the museum might use to secure their private keys.

Governance issues around the NFT-based art collection

It’s a long-term conservation issue, but also a present-day governance issue. Who holds the hardware wallet? Who holds copies of the seed phrase that unlocks it? Is it a multisig wallet that requires several people to sign off on a transaction? How are members of the multisig cycled in and out along with staff turnover? If a museum is acquiring something like a Cryptopunk from SuperRare, Regina Harsanyi points out, they shouldn’t be doing that without a pre-acquisition assessment to find out who owns and runs the associated wallets, contracts, and metadata. As with AKG’s Google Earth acquisition, conservators need to know what will happen if all associated platforms stop working.

It runs into questions of accessioning and deaccessioning. As Brian Frye says “museums have historically thought of deaccessioning as being about physical objects. And so when you ask this question about what museums do with the NFTs, they’re storing them differently. They’re conceptualizing them differently from the fine art collection. And so I think there’s a conceptual problem as to how deaccessioning rules would apply to works of that kind. I think that problem existed in the past when it came to a lot of conceptual art, but the reality is that the market wasn’t that robust. So I don’t think it was as salient a problem. But now that there’s a robust and liquid market for NFTs, I think museums are in a position where they have to think about how and whether traditional deaccessioning rules designed for physical objects translate to this new medium or way of documenting the ownership of art, depending on how you think about it.”

Since bylaws forbid deaccessioning the sale of works for the fine art collection, this might force museums acquiring Blockchain-registered artworks to create and enforce a very clear distinction between the NFT and the art. There also needs to be clear guidelines and resources around wallet governance, keeping a smart contract running, and maybe even forking a blockchain onto one computer held by the museum. Eventually, this might become standardized in bylaws and regulations. This would be very useful for museums that are interested in this kind of work, but the change would have to come from the museums.

WAC Weekly is part of WAC Lab, a new program unleashing the full potential of Web3 for the arts and culture produced by We Are Museums in collaboration with TZ Connect and Blockchain Art Directory, and powered by the Tezos ecosystem.

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